Organizations & Group Work

This section of the Wolff Archive contains documents that relate to Wolff’s work with various groups and organizations over the course of his life. These organizations are listed below with a link to a page that contains a synopsis of Wolff’s association with the group and a description of the documents related to this association that may be found in the Archive.

In one way or another, Wolff was connected with a formal religious or spiritual group throughout his life. His father was a Methodist minister, and so as a child Wolff “had always automatically attended church and Sunday school.”[1] While in college, Wolff became interested in Theosophy, and began to attend meetings of a local theosophical society. Later, when he decided to leave academia to embark on a spiritual quest, he first attempted to form his own commune only to end up at the parent organization of the group that he joined while a university student. After leaving that community, there followed a string of other associations until he and his first wife founded their own “assembly.”

Here is what Wolff had to say about the importance of group work:

One may ask the question, why are there groups or entities such as the Temple of the People, or of the Theosophical Society . . . ? Why are there stories of the initiates at the time of Plato and of Pythagoras in our Western history? Why do we speak of Egyptian mysteries, as well as of Greek mysteries, and of the hidden teachings of the Orient? In our ordinary approach to the subject of knowledge as given in our exoteric schools and universities, we think of knowledge as a common inheritance and that the problem is simply the training of individuals in the beginning so that they may acquire and understand this knowledge. But the mystic tradition which is handed down from the past involves something more; namely, that there is a kind of knowledge in the world which is not available to everybody, that indeed candidates for this knowledge may be subjected to many tests and trials and prove themselves as worthy, and usually the knowledge is given upon the basis of a pledge of secrecy. And one may ask why? There is one answer that is very easily found, and that is that much of this knowledge is of a sort that involves real power—and power that can be misused—and that therefore the custodians of this knowledge should be well-proven individuals in terms of their personal character and in terms of their discretion, so that this knowledge, which on one hand might be used for the edification and advance of humanity on one side, yet could be used by those with questionable motivation as a force for personal power and actually as serving the enslavement of humanity. Therefore, such knowledge should be handled with great care.[2]

One might argue that Wolff’s life embodies another function of religious or spiritual group work—one emphasized by Blaise Pascal in connection with his famous wager. Pascal argued that belief in the existence of God could be justified on prudential grounds; that is, that it is in our best interest to believe in God whatever evidence we may have for the claim “God exists.” Pascal also recognized, however, that even if one was convinced by his argument that it is not possible for a non-believer to suddenly become a theist. In modern terms, this is to recognize that we cannot treat belief as an action: beliefs are not something that we have control over. Pascal’s answer was to encourage non-believers convinced by his argument to go live among religious people. By doing so, he thought that habits of faith would take hold and that a belief in the existence of God would eventually come naturally.

How does Wolff’s life fit this pattern? Although Wolff first became interested in Theosophy in college, he was not initially convinced:

Here was a way of thinking and valuing totally different from that which I found in the university. Nonetheless, I was intrigued, and so I returned again and became even more interested, and ultimately a regular attendant. . . . But I was not satisfied with the soundness of the thinking, and the result was that for three years I disputed the soundness of his position with the leader of the group; meanwhile, feeling that yet there was something here. It was a kind of thinking that was totally foreign with respect to that which I had found in the university. I knew the scientific soundness of university teaching. I knew mathematics and philosophy, or was experiencing it at that time, and yet here was something that seemed to make an appeal to another possibility. Ultimately, I was sufficiently interested to make a tentative association with the entity known as the Temple of the People. I became a member and attended its convention in 1912, just before I went for the year at Harvard. But I was not yet fully convinced that here was a door to truth; it was an intriguing possibility, but there were many elements that were not satisfactory.[3]

Later, when he was set to embark upon a career in the academy, Wolff decided instead to set out in search of “another kind of Consciousness where alone, it seemed, [a] solution to the antinomies of the subject-object consciousness could be found.”[4] Although Wolff would on more than occasion question this decision, he apparently recognized that an association with like-minded individuals would not only help to assuage these doubts, but would provide the right setting for finding this other “kind of Consciousness.”[5] Below is a listing of links to those organizations with which Wolff associated with while on this journey.

 

Organizations & Group Work

 

The Temple of the People (1909-1922)

 

The Arcane School (Sherifa, 1923)

 

The Sufi Order in the West (1923)

 

United Lodge of Theosophy (1923-1928)

 

Benares League of America (1925-1930)

 

The Assembly of Man (1928-1967)

 

The Holistic Assembly (1952-1956)

 


Endnotes

[1] Franklin Merrell-Wolff, “Autobiographical Material: The Feminine Side of My Experience,” part 1 (Lone Pine, Calif.: May 19, 1982), audio recording, 1.

[2] Franklin Merrell-Wolff, “Autobiographical Material: My Academic Life and Embarking upon My Spiritual Quest” (Lone Pine, CA: March 1, 1982), audio recording, 10.

[3] Franklin Merrell-Wolff, “Autobiographical Material: A Recollection of My Early Life and Influences” (Lone Pine, Calif.: July 6, 1978), audio recording, 5.

[4] Franklin Merrell-Wolff, Experience and Philosophy: A Personal Record of Transformation and a Discussion of Transcendental Consciousness (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1994), 91.

[5] As Dave Vliegenhart points out, Wolff was not alone; indeed, this period in American history saw an extraordinary number of individuals seeking spiritual answers collectively. See Dave Vliegenthart, Franklin Merrell-Wolff: An Intellectual History of Contemporary Anti-Intellectualism In America (Ph.D. diss., University of Groningen, 2017), chap. 2, 8ff.